BRACK COMMUNITY LEAD Gracie Teo visited the Snuff Puppets workshop in Melbourne in January 2018. In an extensive conversation, she interviewed Andy Freer, the Artistic Director and Founder of the Snuff Puppets about his practice of over two decades and how an art or project is meaningfully socially engaged. READ PART 1 OF 2 HERE.
In socially engaged art, the words have to ring true to the meaning. (…) I find a better way may be to direct the question of purpose back to the community group and ask “What do you want to do?” or “What do you want to say?”. We never (intentionally) do work that tries to lift people out of a social problem, nothing as specific as that.
G: What do you consider as socially engaged art?
A: I think in socially engaged art, the words have to ring true to the meaning. I think if you are going to do socially engaged art, you are going to have to engage honestly and truthfully, and ideally, deeply with the social group you are engaging with.
I find a better way may be to direct the question of purpose back to the community group and ask “What do you want to do?” or “What do you want to say?”.
We never (intentionally) do work that tries to lift people out of a social problem, nothing as specific as that. Occasionally, we’ve worked with young people from very disadvantaged groups, with poor education, or difficult financial backgrounds, to create a project together.
Generally, we start by working with a whole range of people, and it’s important to start the conversation there, by putting it back to the community and positioning ourselves as facilitators.
By (offering a space) to the community to give them a voice as a social group, we (Snuff Puppets) can engage their ideas, their concerns. Just by offering that the question of purpose back to the group, it can go off in any direction.
When the community is building a giant puppet, tackling the challenges as they emerge also become part of the whole experience. It’s bigger than a human-sized body, it’s a challenge to see the whole thing to the end. It takes having faith in the process.
During the process, we play lots of games, and talk about stories, and have a very physical interactive space. It breaks down people’s barriers, puts everybody on an equal playing field. There can be younger people and older people working together; where beautiful natural relationships emerge, because people are sitting together with a glue gun, working for hours; or another person (working) at a sewing machine. With such an environment, the ideas for the puppets can get more and more ambitious. Sometimes I, or the puppeteers share in the excitement and get anxious as to whether we will finish the puppets at all!
G: Some community projects do one community project, and are trying to find ways to continue their relationships with a community, and not be a one-off event. Snuff Puppets revisits some of the places quite a number of times, how does it do that?
A: A new word we are using to describe this is “legacy”. We don’t really set out to do a social project, we set out to do a workshop and teach people how to make puppets and theatre. People (potential participants) like that as an offering, a real tangible activity, and the workshop produces these big puppets. We are often asked back to the same countries, by other people who have seen the initial performance.
In Indonesia, we did two workshops over two to three years. The first attempt at conducting the workshop in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, actually got cancelled, because of a serious earthquake caused by an eruption by Mount Merapi. The workshop space was turned into a Red Cross station. The organisers sent us off to Bali, while the staff were dealing with a crisis situation. Next year, we returned to complete the workshop.
Another series of performances that the Snuff Puppets did was conducted over a six-year period. We created a performance based on the story of Hanuman from the Ramanyana. In the first iteration, we had 30 kids from the community performing in the show. The organisers really liked it. We were invited back the next year, where over a 100 performers were involved. It is one of the biggest shows we have ever done.
After the Hanuman project, I was so inspired that I just wanted to make a show in Indonesia with professional artists. Following that, we made a show called Wedhus Gembel. We did the creative direction for the show, and staged it in Indonesia itself, the first year.
The next year, we toured the show in Java and performed amidst little villages. We staged the show in a middle of a cemetery, and a slum, in Jakarta. Finally, we brought the show back to Australia, followed by Peru.
This extended engagement came from a sense of affiliation, and the desire to engage with the traditional culture.
It was the feeling of Javanese puppetry and dancing that kept drawing me in; a living, animistic, culture. I find the characters like demons which have a strong “Snuff Puppets” flavor to it as well.
G: There are so many variations in the People’s Puppet Project. How do you decide to start a project?
A: It is really about who contacts us. We communicate clearly; it takes a certain number of people to build and move the puppet about. Absolutely nothing will happen if there are not enough people participating.
The organisers have to understand how important it is to get a good group of people.
There were People’s Puppet Projects in Japan also. It was at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale and Setouchi Triennale, bringing artists and audiences to remote areas to revitalise ageing and disappearing communities and featured participants performing in giant puppets on the banks of rice paddies and inside a 250-year-old traditional Kabuki Theatre. It was the first time they were inviting a performance group to work with the Triennale. Although we didn’t speak the local language, we like to think that language isn’t a barrier to creating a work together.
Following is an excerpt from a blog article about a People’s Puppet Project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which Andy Freer conducted with Stéphane Hisler.
In March 2017, Snuff Puppets toured the Democratic Republic of the Congo to create a giant puppet spectacle with Congolese youth brass band Fanfare Masolo. The centre runs art and education programs for street children, orphans, ex-child soldiers and adults. The space houses a sewing and tailoring school and is the home to the brass band made up of young adult musicians who have grown up at the space over the last twelve years learning music and other skills.
The learning curve was great and wild for both the participants and us. For Stéphane and me (Andy), we felt happily challenged to work in this way, without electricity and sometimes without water, on a fraction of a usual budget. Over eight days we built puppets with locally sourced materials. The puppets were all hand stitched together; the sewing machines were hand powered
For the participants, the collaborative workshop and giant puppet construction was a whole new learning experience. Despite challenges, we were grateful to meet so many amazing and talented people working together to perform a beautifully pure, raw and energetic performance of an act that we’d just made the day before and never fully rehearsed.
Experiencing first hand what it means to live in the capital city of the second biggest country in Africa meant understanding the stark contradictions inherent in a country with the richest of natural resources on the planet and the lowest average income in the world according to the World Bank, with most people living on just 1 dollar a day: where there’s no government services and still wealthy countries and businesses regularly steal precious minerals for electronics like our iPhones.
This project would not have been possible without the invitation and support of Stefanie Oberhoff and Freundeskreis. Steffi saw the first brass instruments donated to Espace Masolo and has been deeply involved there with many projects over the years. She has watched and worked to make happen huge growth, great international exchange and the power of culture and art to transform lives.
While visiting the orphanage that sends some of the kids off each day to Espace Masolo, we were struck by the words of Papa Api Kapinga, the old man who ran the home. He said, “Politics pulls everyone apart, culture brings everyone together.” For this elderly gentleman, who has given his life to saving others, to be so right in his description of humanity filled me with renewed faith in the fact that culture can truly save the world.